As a born New Mexican, I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never been to Carlsbad Caverns before President’s Day weekend. I am definitely a big fan of geological wonders, even bats, but I guess I don’t crave them like I do trout streams and verdant mountainsides. I think that’s all changed now.
One of the great things about the desert is that it forces you to mentally plant trees and shrubbery in the sand and to populate your view with animals of yore if not those already existing but holed up out of the sun and heat and wind that are probably thinking “Why the hell did I evolve where you can’t just go out and get a sip of water when you want one?”
Another thing is the slowness of process, the growth of what will and its decomposition. A type of evolution, though what’s so striking about the caverns is not the timeline of living things but the story of the earth as told by rock. In the Grand Canyon, you can read the story on the multicolored cliffs and even from an airplane. But at Carlsbad, you literally have to penetrate the story in order to understand it.
In the parking lot, you stand on a reef at the edge of what was once an inland ocean spreading south and east before you. Then down you go into thousands of feet of dead and carved marine life. While Dimetrodons became T-Rexes became T-Mobiles, drop by drop of mineral-laden and acidified groundwater calved out chunks of limestone, made rooms, then proceeded to decorate them with speleoforms of every conceivable shape in the divine universe.
The kicker is that if it weren’t for the installation of electricity, Carlsbad Caverns would be amazing in the dark. Talk about trees falling in the forest. “It’s like going into a butthole,” said my nephew, who, like most 7 year olds, has a knack for boiling life down to its most basic truths. Given the theoretical state of our near future world, I fear the worst for my family’s youngest generation, which is why I was quick to take advantage of such an obvious teaching moment. “Mind you, not just any butthole,” I said. “It’s the butthole of time, so of course no light can get through.”
My weekend epiphany came from that. It’s something I’ve been chasing for years, and I finally see that to qualify as a national park, a wild place must be able to cause you to say or feel anything without appearing ridiculous. In other words, a place must be so awe-inspiring, must possess so much cosmic, psychic, and spiritual space that everything that every imagination can and will ever produce fits easily inside it.
In this respect, I believe we have chosen well – Yellowstone, Yosemite, Denali, Carlsbad, to name a few – and I believe we still have a national soul as a result. I hear often of eliminating the Park Service. Parks are wasteful luxuries. We can’t afford them. National soul, I said. That’s something we can never not afford.